Lawsuit against Henniker and one of its officers moves forward with one less claim

Monitor staff
Published: 10/2/2016 11:42:35 PM

A judge recently sided with the town of Henniker when she dismissed a civil claim alleging that the town bears responsibility for the actions of its officer who shot a man in 2014.

But in the same order, U.S. District Court Judge Andrea Johnstone also denied a motion from the town to drop three claims against Henniker Officer Stephen Dennis, alleging assault, battery and negligent use of force.

The town is allowed to reraise its argument in the future to dismiss those claims, and its attorney said Friday he will do so.

Central to the dispute is whether Dennis acted in “good faith” when he chose to fire his duty weapon at Aaron Cadman on a state highway the day after Thanksgiving. The incident unfolded during a heavy snowstorm after Cadman stole a truck and led police on a chase.

Dennis spotted the stolen truck, a late model GMC Sierra, traveling west on Route 202/9 near the Route 114 overpass when he began to give chase. The truck then collided with another truck, spun out of control and slammed into a car, injuring two people in the process.

According to the attorney general’s report, Dennis quickly reached the scene and exited his cruiser, gun drawn. He took cover near a truck about 20 feet away and shouted at Cadman to show him his hands. When Cadman repeatedly refused, the officer took aim at Cadman’s shoulder and pulled the trigger once.

In mid-May, Cadman sued the town and Dennis for $5 million in damages, claiming emotional and physical injuries. The bullet ripped through Cadman’s left elbow, leaving him permanently disabled and with medical bills of more than $114,000, according to the lawsuit.

Cadman was a resident of Webster Place Recovery Center in Franklin for treatment of a heroin addiction at the time of the incident. This past June, just a month after filing the lawsuit, Cadman relapsed and died of a drug overdose.

Attorney George “Skip” Campbell recently substituted Cadman’s estate as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, saying the family believes in moving forward despite the circumstances.

In response to the judge’s Sept. 22 order, the town’s attorney, Brian J.S. Cullen, said Friday, “We’re obviously disappointed in the decision, and I believe the (statute) was intended to provide immunity to officers in cases like this and from suit in general.”

The town maintains Dennis has immunity under state law and is not liable for Cadman’s injuries because he acted “within the scope of his office and in good faith,” as the statute states.

Campbell disagrees, saying in court documents that Dennis’s decision to use deadly force was “unnecessary” and “unreasonable.” He further argues that Cadman did not pose a safety threat to Dennis or anyone else at the scene.

The definition of “good faith” and how it applies to this case will remain at the heart of the debate as the case moves forward.

Cullen argues that allegations of “wanton and unreasonable” conduct against Dennis are not enough to defeat the protections the law affords municipal employees. Further, he says, that characterization of Dennis’s conduct is debatable given the circumstances leading up to the shooting.

In his motion for judgment, Cullen cites unpublished case law to bolster his argument.

While acknowledging Cullen’s position, Judge Johnstone notes that the state Supreme Court has yet to define “good faith” in a published opinion. To define the phrase, she looks to the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, which states that “good faith” is “honesty in belief or purpose” and “faithfulness to one’s duty or obligation.”

Campbell said in an interview Thursday that a jury must ultimately decided whether it was reasonable for Dennis to shoot Cadman under the circumstances that he did.

“With all of the officer-involved shootings that have taken place around the country and which have been heavily reported in the media, it’s a very real question as to when it’s appropriate for an officer to use lethal force against a civilian,” he said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)


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